A Travellerspoint blog

Good King Wenceslas Looked Down....

Prague Part 1

semi-overcast -5 °C
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We flew into the Czech Republic Sunday afternoon, coming in over dazzling snowfields, broken up by small forrest tracts. It really was a wonderful sight, surreal almost or should we say Kafkaesque. Fortunately the runways were clear and we landed without incident. We once again negotiated customs and passport control without a hitch. It was a marked contrast from our departure earlier that morning in Turkey, where it took over two hours to get our baggage checked, even though we had already checked in online. On top of that an overzealous official decided that Ian's back pack had to be completely unloaded, due apparently, to a suspicious 4 port power board. What was more amusing was her complete bafflement at Ian's UE Boom speaker. She handled it like a grenade as we tried to explain what it was thankfully "la musical "appears to be an internationally understood term.

Thanks to Cath's previous experience of Prague, it took next to no time to find the right bus, then the right tram to our lodgings. Ian was completely blown away by the gorgeous baroque buildings, orderly streets and traffic, cobbled pathways and numerous parks. As the tram trundled along, it was wonderful to catch glimpses of tall gold tipped spires and ornately decorated streets and buildings. With no offence to Istanbul, it really did feel as though we had finally found civilisation, as we know it, again.

Our apartment was immaculate, located on the second floor (although they call it 3rd, as the ground floor is referred to as 1st) of a baroque building only one block from the Vltava river. We headed out to a nearby Tesco's and bought provisions, including a bottle of Shiraz and one of Sav Blanc- risky given we don't speak Bohemian. We were a little worried that we may have overdone it, as the bill was 628 Kroner, until we did our conversions and realised it amounted to just under $33 AUD. The wine? About $3 a bottle! At that price you would expect pretty awful wine, but you'd be wrong. The Shiraz was quite drinkable and we haven't tried the Sav Blanc yet. It was a very pleasant evening, curled up in a modern, warm and cosy flat, excellent wifi speeds and a home cooked meal by the cheese and kisses.

But Baby Its Cold Outside...

We decided that although it was technically Monday, we would call it Saturday and so slept in before arising late and having a marvellous cooked breakfast of bacon and eggs. Ah the small things... Then we were off into the town. Everything is so close that we didn't bother with transport. The river is flowing and there is little ice, so there were plenty of ducks and numerous big white swans ducking their heads into the chilly waters. Poor buggers; it certainly looked like spanner water to Ian.

The city is so pretty. Gold topped ornaments, spires, statues. Buildings adorned with all kinds of creatures, gargoyles, cherubs and angels. Charles bridge has the most amazing number of statues, but Cath was determined to take Ian to Wenceslas Square to see the astronomical clock, so we plowed on. Ian absolutely loved it all, commenting that it was the nearest to a fairytale he had been. We stopped for strudel, warmed cinnamon apple juice for Cath and coffee, before making more purchases and then catching the metro and a tram back home as the temperature dropped to -8C with a "freezing fog" according to the weather report. What a "freezing fog" is, we remain unsure but it sure is cold and allows an afternoon of nibbling, reading, planning and wine of course.

Our neighbourhood, Praha 5, has many shops, delis, wine and beer bars, restaurants and bakeries. Naturally it was our duty to explore them and our lovely Airbnb host Zuzana had left some recommendations. As is our way we have found a local and settled in for a few of the best Czech Urquell Pilsners, Cath struggled with lifting the enormous glass to her mouth, pretty unusual for this girl not be able to get a drink in, but they are bloody heavy. Typically Aussie, it was home for a feed of steak and veg. Whilst we do like to try the local fare, it seemed like forever since we had an Aussie meal. We were left wondering what Queensland steak is, as it was labelled at Tescos.

Did somebody mention pork?

Tuesday was even colder, and we awoke to see tiny snowflakes tumbling down. After another of Cath's fine omelettes, we were off to see the castle. The cobbled pavements were slippery and we had to walk carefully like a couple of penguins, but we eventually struggled to the top of the hill where we found the largest castle in Europe. Along the way, delightful streetscapes greeted the eye in every direction; from the many statues of Charles bridge, crenallated walls, buildings tizzied up like so many birthday cakes and of course sprinklings of gold atop church spires and various other decorations. Prague, it must be said, is a beautiful romantic city and you do expect a princess to appear from her salon. We waddled carefully up the hill and after admiring the view tip toed down to spend a half hour in yet another Irish pub, out of the snow, whilst we established our next goal, a traditional Czech restaurant recommended by our host.

U Pinkasu was possibly one of the best, if not the best, restaurant we have been in. Established in 1843, it is still serving up recipes that are time honoured favourites. Accompanied by the now ubiquitous beers, the starters were a magnificent plate of various types of.... you guessed it, pork, ham, pork, pickled cabbage, red onions, spicy sausages, pickled onions, duck, more porkish type meats, chillies and a kind of terrine that was just so yummy. All this served up with a variety of breads and.... more beer. Did we mention that beer is served only in half litre steins, which consist of about a third of froth? Thoroughly delicious and you get a workout getting it to your mouth. The Czechs apparently lay claim to having invented pilsner and it is very good! We followed up with a couple of heavyweights in the meat eating stakes. Cath had pork knee, it must have been one huge pig to have had a knee that big, a slow roasted joint which eventually beat her into submission, served with mustard, horse radish, cabbage, chillies and pickles. Ian tackled a fabulous concoction of pork and other minced delicacies, wrapped in a filo pastry, together with a variety of pickled vegetables and spicy chillies and mustard. These two meals were delicious. Dare we say we were regaled by a magnificent repast? As this course was also accompanied by more steins of beer, we retired gracefully without dessert and caught the metro home, picking up a bottle of Shiraz for the evening, to leaven the pilsner. By the way, that meal and drinks, which would have cost well over $200 AUD weighed in at $52 AUD! The remainder of the evening was spent wallowing on the couch...

Posted by Seantiel 04:52 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (1)

East meets West

Istanbul

rain 6 °C
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It was with a sense of relief that we left Iran; perhaps it was the feeling of being overwhelmed by a huge city struggling to cope with the myriad problems of a massive population, chronic shortages, endlessly convoluted traffic and crumbling pavements and buildings . Or maybe it was the continual worry about whether we had calculated our finances sufficiently to last the trip, and being stranded. Whatever the case, as the lights of Tehran diminished into the darkness, two weary travellers quickly fell asleep in the comfort of Turkish Airlines flight 899, bound for Istanbul.

We both awoke to the plane slowing for descent and were kept in suspense by thick rain clouds until the very last minute, when we burst through the clouds to see the city and coastline revealed below us. Passport control was quick and within 15 minutes, we were cashed up and on the shuttle bus into the city.

Green, green and more green! How wonderful and relaxing to the eye to once again see lawns and trees, even though they were interspersed with snow drifts and drizzling rain. The freeway system was well maintained, the traffic followed road rules, we were once again in the west; well, almost. It took about twenty minutes before we crossed the Bosphorus and were deposited on the European side of the city near Taksim square.

As we collected our luggage we were immediately set upon by taxi drivers hassling us for a lift and finally climbed into one, even though it appeared our accommodation was only one kilometre away. We were staying in Beyoglu, an old part of the city, which is quite hilly and the convoluted streets and alleys quickly confused us. The taxi driver navigated the way easily though and deposited us within fifty metres of our apartment. Unfortunately, not before bamboozling Ian, with some slick sleight of hand, out of the bulk of his lira!

Feeling righteously aggrieved, we racked on the door of the apartment until a man emerged from a door a couple of houses away and motioned for us to wait, whilst he went to a building a few houses in the opposite direction and aroused an African woman. She let us in and after a phone call, was able to offer us an apartment on the fourth floor, as the occupants of our intended flat had not yet vacated. We accepted and the fellow kindly carried our luggage up for us.

Cath immediately set to making us a home, organising all our stuff, while Ian dithered, no surprise really! After that we wandered out in search of groceries, it had been a while since we felt as though we had a home and it was really nice to do some 'normal' things. What a delight to find an open air market around the first corner and plenty of little grocery stores including a bottle shop. Unfortunately due to our cash shortage, about which Ian was still chafing, we had to go into a Carrefours store. It was great to be provisioned though and we headed back to the apartment with great anticipation. Cath was going to cook a meal and we had two bottles of wine.....Turkish wine, well it wasn't quite Grange but it was wine and at that point anything would do.

Our first morning in our Istanbul home was spent doing what we do at home, reading the news; local and international, multiple cups of tea and coffee, breakfast cooked and general laziness but it also included planning our day in a new exotic city. Does it get more exotic than the ancient Constantinople?

A cold and wet mid morning, truthfully closer to lunchtime, saw us off to Taksim Square, familiar as a scene of revolutions and protests but also thankfully the location of banks and metro stations. Down the funicular we went to get the tram to Sultanhamet to see the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. We were a little confused about stations and were trying to get off a bit early when the locals spotted us and intervened. With little to no English a lovely elderly couple stopped us and then explained where to get off, don't mention the taxi drivers! We were happily standing in the rain mouths open at both the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque when a young man decided to test his English on us, next minute we were in his uncle's carpet shop, across the road from the family hotel. Two hours later, 2 cups of beautifully flavoured tea, a coffee, baklava and a damn good conversation, running from religion to tour sites of the world, we were trying to find a reason NOT to buy a beautiful Kazak carpet. No carpet was purchased, no thanks to Cath, who actually loathes carpet but fell in love with this one. Perhaps it was the baklava!

Off to the blue mosque, again there are few words to describe the beauty and intricacy of the decoration. We were able to visit this mosque together and to observe the faithful at prayer, from a distance. It felt very welcoming, much like entering the great cathedrals of the world, Notre Dame the closest we could find to compare. Ian had a moment of connection with a very exotic instrument, commenting to Cath that he had spent some time wondering at how they were creating the weird droning sound. It wasn't until they turned it off and on again, that he realised it was a vacuum cleaner. House husband skills remain in question!!!! Obviously we had to leave at this point for Cath to stop giggling.

Hagia Sophia was unfortunately closed on Mondays, so instead we wandered off to Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman sultans. As we wandered the kitchens and grounds, reading about the history of the place, we were amazed and appalled at the opulence of their lifestyles. Nevertheless, they had created some wonderful rooms and buildings. The view from the battlements across the Bosphorus and Golden Horn was, of course, magnificent.

As dark closes in quite rapidly at this time of the year we headed home for a rest and to decide what the evening may hold. Beyoglu has many bars, cafes and restaurants so some research was required to decide on how to approach the evening. Feeling obliged to visit our local, we popped into the bottle shop at the end of the street for supplies and headed home for a couple of quiet ones and some research into nightly activities.

On the taxi ride to our accomodation the day before, Cath had spotted an Irish pub and as we were both a bit keen for a beer we headed off to find it. It was all a little bit too easy and along the way the smell of kebab cooking everywhere got our mouths watering. A couple of plates of chicken kebab, rice and salad later, we were beer ready, however we got a bit distracted by the very bright lights, music and multiple bars just up the street from the James Joyce Irish Pub. It turns out the streets leading up the hill in Beyoglu are full of bars and restaurants all leading up to Istikal Caddesi, a very famous Istanbul shopping and night spot, with a lovely red vintage tram running down the middle. Street performers, art, markets and beautiful old buildings, all lit up with a kaleidoscope of lights, kept us wandering for an hour or so, but finally it was time to choose a bar and hear some local music. We visited a few of the establishments, heard some good and not so good music, had a few Belgian beers and marvelled at the way the young and hip, muslim and we assume non muslim, were happily partying away Monday night. It was lovely to see a couple of young muslim girls with their head scarves, included in the clearly student lifestyle in the bars, dancing and partying away; such a contrast with the female oppression in Iran.

Not yet ready to head home we decided it was time for a Guinness and were off to the James Joyce. We had a very nice time chatting to an English guy, his Turkish girlfriend and the bar staff whilst sipping Reki, a Turkish spirit much like Ouzo or Pastis, Guinness for Cath and Whisky for Ian. Before we knew it, it was last drinks, 2am. Time for bed, or so we thought. As we arrived home the young guy who worked in the apartment's cafe and reception was keen for a chat and with Reki loosened tongues so were we. It turned out Mohammed was a Syrian refuge and after a good chat about Syria and world events he invited us to meet his friends whom he shares accomodation with, just around the corner. He was as surprised as us to find them with a couple of German girls dancing in the street and ready to head out to a bar, seemed like we were going out again! A short stroll to a small bar a few stories up in an old building and it was beer all round, except for Mohammed who didn't drink alcohol. Admittedly it was a little surprising to be sitting in a bar with half a dozen muslim guys drinking beer, but when in Istanbul..... The hours flew by, and before we knew it the owner of the bar was quite rightly wanting to go home, it was 4:45am! It had been a pleasure to have the opportunity to discuss life, politics, religion, hopes and dreams with these young people and yet distressing too; so full of life and yet homeless, although thankfully, not hopeless. For those of you who may be interested and in Melbourne, one of these guys is a film maker and has a film premiering at the Melbourne Film Festival this year.

What a night! We are both very certain that we would not have taken an opportunity like this at home, in fact we would probably have been so worried about what might happen to us that we would never have even considered it. Travelling is changing us, we are more open to taking opportunities, getting out of our comfort zones, relishing the contact with new friends not viewing them as strangers.

Tuesday promised to be a very slow day, given that we were only just in bed when the sun got up. A long sleep, some foraging for food, the best $0.50 AUD chicken kebab sandwich ever and planning our next adventure were all we could manage. Back to seeing Istanbul in the day time on Wednesday....

Headed in the direction of Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar we thought a coffee and baklava would be the best way to start the day. We were once again delayed by local guys wanting to sell us carpet, ceramics, jewellery and to give us tea in the hope that we would be persuaded to part with some cash, one guy even offered " I am happy to take your money to sell you stuff you don't need". Very honest. We were slow to learn, that in Istanbul, everyone wanting to help you is actually trying to sell you something and we got caught again, this time buying the world's biggest box of baklava and Locum- Turkish delight for about twice the price we could have bought it closer to our accomodation rather than in touristy Sultanhamet. It was a cold and drizzly morning and Cath finally found Salep, a warm milk drink mixed with orchids and cinnamon which complimented the baklava beautifully and warmed us before our tour around Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia, a church, a mosque and now a museum is an awe inspiring monument and a credit to the ideals of a secular Turkey. Again we were reminded of the ingenuity and commitment of people a couple of thousand years ago; they could seriously build. We had read that it is an awesome experience to hear the call to prayer at a point between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia as the Muezzin call to each other and it was like a sing off. Whilst we understood none of it, obviously, it was quite an experience to hear. The Grand Bazaar was an interesting building but again we found it to be a bit like all the others, the history is amazing and the building impressive but it's generally as the young guy said full of stuff you don't need and stuff you need less when your life is in a suitcase and backpack.

We found our rituals in Istanbul and a couple of beers before a trip to the kebab shop was becoming a nightly one. Feeling a little adventurous we headed down some of the less lit streets off Istikal Cd. and found a great little rooftop bar with a magnificent view of the city including the Galata tower, all dressed in red lights, the multiple mosques dominated by the Blue Mosque in her pretty golden glow and the lights of craft moving up and down the Bosphorus.

Things got a little tricky with our accomodation on Wednesday and Thursday of our week in Istanbul as there appeared to be a gas problem, no heating and no hot water. Luckily there was a reverse cycle air conditioner to provide warmth but the hot water, not so easily solved. Initially Cath was happy to report this to the staff at the apartments and wait for the problem to be fixed but when it was the same on Thursday morning, the cranky bear got up and about, only management would be able to deal with this one. So the morning was spent dealing with getting hot water back, which appeared to a waste of a day, as the same thing occurred again on Friday and a change of apartments was in order. A pity as we had planned a Bosphorus boat trip up to the Black Sea. Two days in a row foiled by the very poor management of the apartment.

We have found durum kebab to be a great cheap way of eating lunch, they are a huge roll with kebab chicken, salad and a spice mix, price? 2TL, the equivalent of $0.60AUD, it's almost criminal to pay so little for such good food. We discovered Ian's favourite street so far, musical instrument shop after shop, some very beautiful pieces located in cobblestoned streets with pretty heritage buildings in pastel colours. The view from the top of the hill was spectacular, the city spreads across the many hills of Istanbul, a rainbow of pastel coloured buildings interspersed with minarets. The call to prayer echoes up the the valley and across the water from all directions creating a cacophony of wailing, atonal to Ian's ear but quite haunting just the same.

Another night in the pub, why not? They are there to be used, this time the scene of the crime was the U2 Irish pub, it appears that both Turkish people and tourists are quite keen on Guinness. A great night of conversation with the Cretian barman, a German guy on business and a couple of Istanbulites, as well as guitar playing by Ian and a bit of silliness as the beer and Raki flowed. After the pub our habit is to call in and see the guys at Yasam Lokantasi on our way home, they now know our order and as we enter it is "spicy" for Ian and "durum" for Cath. It is a pretty basic small eatery but serves the best spicy meat and veg dish that Ian loves and chicken kebab for Cath, again the price is crazy, 12 TL and we can use the excuse that we are getting our meat and veg for the day.

Friday night in Istanbul, we were feeling a bit tired of the hustle and bustle of Istiklal Cd so wandered around the streets close to Taksim Square looking for a restaurant for dinner, it was time for a change and we found the perfect spot, an Italian restaurant and wine bar, finally a decent glass of red. It was a while in the making and so having found a nice bottle for a reasonable price, we had two and a very nice meal. The area around Taksim has some very flash hotels and the clientele in the restaurant possible reflected that.

Saturday, our last full day in Istanbul. Cath had decided we were going on that damn cruise come hell or high water, hopefully not really high water. Again the public transport was easy, finding the boat terminal was easy and you wouldn't believe it, the sun came out. We spent an hour and a half cruising up the Bosphorus to Andalou Kavagi, a small fishing village on the Asian side located at the opening of the Bosphorus into the Black Sea. Ian had an encounter with one of the many local dogs, got his bum bitten for his trouble and that made us decide that lunch and beer were in order. Cath was having fish and chips, if she had to catch the fish herself. Thankfully it was already sitting on the grill waiting for her and in not very long we were seated in a small square in the sun, with;Sea Bass, Chips, Salad, Kofte (for the non fish eating Ian), Calamari rings and beers. We had a lovely couple of hours in the village enjoying the sun before the return trip, naturally sitting on the other side of the boat to ensure that we didn't miss either the European or Asian view. The waterside properties and boats are reminiscent of Sydney although with more pastel coloured buildings.

And so our last night in Istanbul has arrived, tonight we will once again brave the chilly evening, walk amongst the throngs of happy, laughing Turkish people and then grab another cheap but wonderful meal, before hitting the sack early. We are flying to Prague tomorrow and Ian can already sense the sausages calling....

Posted by Seantiel 07:39 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

On the Silk Road- the final instalment

Tehran

sunny 6 °C
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After a long train journey we arrived to a confusion of taxi drivers, pretty sure that is the collective term for taxi drivers. We added to the confusion by having an address to the See You in Iran (SYI) Hostel written in English. To add more to confusion the place has only been open a month and is an artists collective and Facebook group that Cath has been following since we decided to travel in Iran, Facebook is a blocked site in Iran making it a little more dodgy. After a number of drivers had some input, it was decided that it was best to phone the Hostel- success,we had an address; in Farsi. Thankfully it was Friday and the notorious traffic was calm, in fact the streets were virtually deserted, no mean feet in a city of 16 million.

On arrival at SYI we were greeted by young, very trendy, I hesitate to say hipster locals with perfect English who led us into a Cafe overlooking a still under construction courtyard. It was a delight to be welcomed with music- Western and Iranian, tea, breakfast and people of all ages sharing the space. We sat and enjoyed the sun streaming in the windows whilst we waited for our room to be prepared.

Tehran is a metropolis like any other, expensive, noisy and dirty although they claim to have the cleanest Metro in the world, we wonder what Singapore would have to say about that. We stayed a couple of blocks from the former US Embassy which is famous for the anti-USA murals along it's walls which are a whole lot more impressive in photos than in person. It was amusing to note that they have set up the "anti arrogance exhibition" in the grounds of the former embassy though. Feeling a bit watched we decided it was best to explore other parts of the city and set off on our usual exercise routine, walking to where we know not. We met a lovely couple on the street who were keen to know if we were "Briton", as you have glowing skin and eyes" and spent half an hour discussing Australia, Portugal where they plan to have spring break and what to see in Tehran. It turned out she, a PhD student in Agricultural Science and he, a civil engineer, had followed us down the street to talk with us, they really do have a need to know about the outside world.

As we are staying in the arty, liberal part of town we found ourselves having dinner in an Italian cafe, next to the theatre, that had pretty average pasta but fantastic, photo worthy cappuccino- finally! Running low on Rial and not wanting to exchange any more USD as we have only one day left we have little choice but to have an early night with a book and to make plans for how to get to the airport.

Our last day in Iran started with an almost normal Saturday morning routine minus Cath's much wanted bacon and eggs in bed, maybe next week, there were newspapers though so she was almost placated. Breakfast at SYI Cafe was pretty good, frittata with dates- an usual but very tasty mix and then the days exercise, walking to and around the Grand Bazaar Tehran. We are feeling qualified to comment on the quality of bazaars at this point in our Silk Road journey and this one whilst big is far less impressive than those in Shiraz and Isfahan, more like the junk area of the Victoria Market really, it lacks the creativity, colour and one must say friendliness of those smaller regional markets. In fact those towns were on the whole friendlier, more attractive towns. It has been hard to see the beauty of Tehran, much like our travel in Cuba the evidence of economic sanctions is everywhere; formally beautiful buildings are in disrepair, the streets are polluted and it appears there is a general lack of pride in streets. In a strange turn of events Cath had a celebrity moment as we were organising check out of our accomodation, many of the places we have visited Cath has researched via a blog called Travestyle- written by a young Persian woman and we met her in the cafe today as it turns out she is the daughter of a diplomat and spent her primary school years in, of all places, Canberra, poor love.

Iran has been an interesting place to travel and we have learnt an enormous amount about the culture, history and people. Not unexpectedly there have been a few surprises and some culture shock. Overall would we recommend a visit to Iran? Yes as everywhere deserves a chance but will we be back, not anytime soon but who knows?

And now we cross over from the East to the West- Istanbul awaits.

Posted by Seantiel 02:53 Archived in Iran Comments (0)

On the Silk Road-Part 3

Yazd

sunny 10 °C
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Breakfast, pay the bill, catch the taxi, jump on the bus and we were off to Yazd. More of the same countryside for the next four hours and then we arrived in Yazd. Although it appears a good deal smaller and less frantic than Shiraz, the old city is far neater and cleaner and the mud brick buildings are in good repair. It was a delight to wander through the ancient alleyways, seeing structures that appeared untouched for centuries. Also the wind towers, the first air conditioners, looked very impressive and undoubtedly worked; the alleys are cool, peaceful and clean. We enjoyed afternoon tea, coffee and cake at a rooftop restaurant, from which we had a good view of the old city rooftops and then returned to our hotel for a bit of R&R.

The rooftop restaurant at the Orient hotel, where we are staying, has a fantastic view of the Jame Mosque, which is lit up in purple and blue lights, highlighting the amazing mosaic tiles. On our wander through the old city we found the library, naturally Cath was in the door like a shot, and we learnt heaps from the librarian including that the mosaic on mosques in Iran is not just pretty tiling but a design that conveys the word of the Quran, this is particular to the Yazd area of Iran. We also saw the first gum tree we have ever seen inside a building, in the middle of the library. Upon enquiring we learnt that the previous owner of the building had been in ill health and had the tree planted to aid his healing. We gave the lovely young man a few tips on how to use eucalyptus oil and suggested he might like to get a koala, we left not sure that he had quite understood the Aussie sense of humour. Feeling adventurous at dinner, we decided that it was time to try the camel stew and it was very nice, if you had told either of us it was beef or lamb we would happily have agreed. Although we did hope that it was not one of the pretty white camels we have seen around Iran.

Our second day in Yazd promised to be a challenge as we had to book out of the hotel by lunchtime and did not catch the train until nearly midnight. What do you do when there is no local pub to pop in and waste a bit of time? Initially we thought that visiting the Zoroastrian fire temple and museum would be a good idea, Cath was keen to find out more about this mysterious group but alas they have very specific opening hours and as we had arrived a bit early we missed out. So a good walk around the city, lunch at a traditional restaurant, more walking to find an ice-cream and finally holing up in our favourite cafe so far, the Iranian Old Cafe which advertises Lavazza coffee and pasta - we may just have found a nice warm part of heaven in Yazd.
It was also the first day that Cath struggled with being a woman in Iran. We always knew it would be a challenge both personally and ideologically for Cath (and most likely western women in general) to travel in Iran, however it really was not an issue until this morning. There really is no way to describe it on the page without sounding a bit naive and pathetic and perhaps that is exactly how it was. The constant mental activity of having to think about what you look like, what you are wearing, whether you are covered enough, or offending, is wearying and whilst it must be a normal part of life for Iranian woman it takes its toll on those who do not have this as their normal life. It passed quickly though and after some reflection it is a small frustration in the greater scheme of things. It did however draw our thoughts to Turkey and beyond.
Finally off to the train station to catch the overnight train to Tehran and also our first instance of someone overtly trying to rip off the tourists, it may have been happening all along but we were blissfully ignorant of it. The man at the ticket counter tried to get Cath to pay for the tickets, which have already been purchased prior to our arrival in Iran, all he had to do was print them. The poor man may not have met the likes of tired, cold and cranky Cath but he got a very short "we've payed"; clearly the tone told him not to take it any further. The railway staff were very kind and clearly concerned that we would miss our train, they checked on us regularly to ensure we got on the right train, we were even escorted to the carriage by a young policeman.
The train was an interesting affair, quite comfortable but took about 3 hours longer than it should have possibly due to the frequent unexplained stops in the middle of nowhere. It seemed that it stopped every half hour, perhaps it was a bit tired and cranky too.

Posted by Seantiel 00:00 Archived in Iran Comments (0)

On the Silk Road-Part 2

Isfahan

sunny 10 °C
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Off to Isfahan, the bus company were expecting us and had us squared away in no time. By 10:30 we were on the road (it was actually the 11:00 o'clock bus) trundling through a landscape of rugged mountains and flat plains. It is quite awe inspiring landscape, the mountains seemed to emerge out of the flat plains with almost no rise in between; jagged peaks and sheer cliffs. The country is almost monotone; brown cliffs, brown sandy plains with brown tussocks and bare deciduous trees - it is the middle of winter after all. The only relief comes from tired looking pines of varying types and the occasional interloping gum tree; where in the world do they not turn up? Sadly much of the roadside is littered with rubbish, which creates an unfavourable impression of the edges of a tip. It reminds us of Australian roadsides before the don't rubbish Australia campaign, only worse.

We passed through many tired villages, wondering how the locals could eke out an existence, the land seeming endlessly barren and dry. Occasionally though, there would be a few green fields growing some type of low lying crop, irrigated presumably by pump water. Eventually we stopped for a rest at a roadside cafe and were urged by the driver to get out for a cup of coffee. We followed the other occupants of the bus through one door of a fairly ramshackle building and walked up to the counter where Ian ordered coffee. The attendant pointed out the door and indicated that the coffee shop was at the other end of the building. It was then that the penny dropped, we had followed the others into a prayer meeting... Quickly retracing our steps we walked onto the tiled verandah, where Ian, not noticing the water on the tiles did his best impersonation of a gymnast doing a floor routine, only pulling up just short of decrutching himself. He quickly recovered, somewhat red faced and we proceeded to buy our coffee. We will have tea from now on, coffee is not exactly what the grey liquid appeared to be. About 15 minutes later the passengers filed out, together with a Mullah, resplendent in his traditional garb, with a hat that resembled half a large Easter egg, gift wrapped and placed on his head. What really set it off though was when he lit up a fag and puffed away while chatting with some of the men.

The countryside passed by hour after hour, changing very little until we finally arrived at Isfahan and caught a waiting taxi, which took us into the city and eventually our hotel.

Isfahan is enormous, making Shiraz appear a backwater. In contrast it is highly westernised with large freeway systems, high rise apartments and modern buildings. It wasn't until we closed in on our accommodation that we again found the ancient roots of the city. Once again narrow winding alleyways and frenetic traffic. We arrived at our guest house, the Dibai Hotel and were delighted to find it was beautifully traditional. Carved ceilings, ornate plastered walls and of course a lovely courtyard, from which we can see a tower which appears to be centuries old.

As we had only eaten a snack on the bus, we determined to go and find dinner, so essayed forth into the byzantine alleyways and onto a boulevard, which surprisingly led right on to Imam Square or more correctly Naqsh-e Jahan Square, a UNESCO site. We had hardly stepped into the space when we were accosted by a shopkeeper, who introduced himself as Saeed. He insisted that we join him in his shop for a cup of tea and then while we chatted, he told us that he knew of a traditional restaurant we could go to. Not only that, he walked us right down the street to it! He offered to take us up, but we said we were happy to muddle through and he left us to it. It was at this stage that things became downright ridiculous. We realised that we didn't have enough cash on us for dinner and so decided instead to go for a wander around the square. Ian was embarrassed at having to pass Saeed's shop again, without having been in to the restaurant, so walked over to explain the situation. It is an example of these generous and friendly people that Saeed insisted on lending Ian 700,000 rials to go and have dinner, saying he could pay him back the next day. And he wouldn't take no for an answer!

Cashed up now, we went up to the restaurant and were seated in a private room, where the owner, Mohammed, commenced taking our order. Language was a problem as his English was limited and our Farsi, non existent. We can now say thank you, motshakarem. The solution? Mohammed pulled out his iPhone, fired up Google Translate and then commenced the oddest conversation, with him speaking into the phone in Farsi, the phone speaking to us in English and then vice versa. We all had an hilarious time, what with explaining our wish to have a traditional meal, him advising which to choose and then moving on to talking about our children and god knows what.

We were then served the best meal we have had in Iran; chicken and lamb chabobs (kebab), yoghurt, olives, onions, oranges, an amazing stew of walnuts, lamb, saffron and pistachios, pink fermented cabbage that resembled rose petals, a type of sweet pea leaves that tasted of aniseed and more. And all of this washed down with a strange fermented milk and mint drink with a kind of fizziness to it, Door (which came back to bite Ian on the bum in the following days). It tasted amazing! Cath looked like she was ready to give birth by the end of it, big food baby! The meal was followed up with a pot of tea, served with saffron sugar sticks, chocolates, dates sprinkled with icing sugar and pistachios and nougat. All up about $20 Australian, 500,000 Rial, 50,000 Toman- still haven't quite figured the Toman/Rial thing out.

We had a quick look at Imam Square to walk off some of dinner but the cold night hurried us home to bed.

A bit of sleep in, on day 2 of Isfahan, before we headed off to breakfast in a beautiful underground room, Soufi the owner of Dibai house has done an amazing job of restoring this traditional Persian house but without kitsch, it is a truly beautiful space. Breakfast done and we were off to the Square to repay Saeed and have a wander; after sitting in a bus all day our legs desperately need a stretch. The Imam square is huge, one of the biggest city squares in the world and surrounded by a traditional bazaar. Again we were met with locals wanting to enquire where we were from and nearly caused a riot amongst a group of primary school girls on excursion; the poor teacher was left with no students as they rushed to greet us, suddenly we were in the middle of a pink sea of niqabs all shouting out their names and asking a million questions about Australia. We finally broke away from them and studiously avoided any other school groups in the square.

We met a young local man who advised that we head to the Armenian quarter for coffee and to see the Christian Armenian Church. Cath, ever the trip advisor had already done the research and was interested to visit and wish the Orthodox Armenians merry Christmas. Orthodox Christmas being this week. It was lovely to see Christmas decorations in the street and a bit weird to see Santa in the church grounds- no nativity here. We were left feeling quite sad after visiting the church- constructed in 1655 after the first Armenian expulsion and the museum which outlined the Armenian genocide of 1915. A quick walk through the Armenian quarter fixed that; it appears there is quite a bit of money in this area as the shops appeared upmarket. A quick lunch and we decided to see if we would find our way home along the river.

River, what river? There clearly has not been water in the Zayanderud river for sometime, it is as dry as bone and many locals have given up using the bridges and just cross the river bed. Cath being a river girl, was quite disturbed that they could let this happen and the Si-o-se Pol bridge, famous for its arches and acoustics is a disappointment without water. Using only our noses as the offline map program does not appear to like Iran very much we found our way to the hotel for a little afternoon nap, some housekeeping and to escape the cold.

Dinner at Dibai House promised to be a mix of Spanish, where Soufi now lives in Ibiza, and Iranian but did not really excite us. A fairly pedestrian meal and perhaps we would have been better trying some of the street food but it was just too cold to go out again. Cath even pulled out the thermals for the first time, not so sexy!

Our third day in Isfahan is a national day of mourning, as a former president is to be buried in Tehran. Many of the shops are closed and people are able to spend the day picnicking in the square. As the bazaar is less crowded it is a good opportunity to wander without crowds. It is another sunny but cool day and perfect for an afternoon sitting in the sun, reading and a chance for Ian to rest his back after a mishap when dressing, oops.
A very cold night and we are both rugged up in the thermals to take a quick walk down the street and grab some fast food, pizza Iranian style- hmm interesting but not really to our taste- serves us right for not going with Iranian food but then the locals all seem to love fast food including their own version of KFC.

Posted by Seantiel 05:28 Archived in Iran Comments (0)

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